double-slit experiment

This post attempts to model the double-slit experiment with a very simple quantum computer. That way, we won't understand the weirdness, but at least we'll see some simple math that reproduces it.
This post is an update to a previous post, and it may be helpful to read that one first.
The double slit experiment convinced me that quantum stuff was weird. The experiment goes something like this. We shine a light at two thin slits near each other, and we expect to see two thin bars of light on the other side. However, somehow the thinness of the slits causes the light to spread out, as if the photons are hitting the sides of the slits and being deflected. But that's not all. If the light just spread out behind each slit, we would expect to see two wider patches of light, but instead we see many bands of light.

The common explanation is that the light is behaving like a wave, where the bands of light are analogous to water waves from two pebbles dropped in a lake interfering with each other.

However, if we dim the light so that only one photon is going at a time, we still see the interference pattern. This is weird because it suggests that a single photon must somehow be going through both slits, and then interfering with itself.

At this point, someone got the bright idea to try and detect which slit each photon went through. I don't know how they do that. It seems impossible to "see" a photon. But they manage, and when they do, they see the photon go through one slit or the other, but the interference pattern goes away. This leads people to scratch their heads and say things like "quantum stuff is all crazy and wave like until you observe it, and then it quickly shapes up and acts normal".

Simple Model

Now let's model what's going on with a simple quantum computer. This section will be easier to understand after reading this post, and will use the random and copy gates from that post.

At first, our computer will involve a single qubit. This qubit represents the photon. The qubit can be 0 or 1. We'll say that 0 is analogous to a photon in the double-slit experiment going through the first slit, and 1 is analogous to the photon going through the second slit.

Next, we need to model the "spreading out" of the photon after it goes through a slit. We'll do this with a gate called half-random. The gate works like this: if we send a 0 through it, then it will probably stay a 0, but it might change to a 1. If we send a 1 through it, then it will probably stay a 1, but it might change to a 0. This is meant to represent a photon going through a slit and probably hitting the wall directly behind that slit, but maybe hitting somewhere else.

The matrix for the gate is [[cos(π/8), sin(π/8)], [sin(π/8), -cos(π/8)]]. We can model sending a 0 through it, by first recalling that a 0 is represented with the state vector [1, 0], and then doing some matrix multiplication [1, 0] * [[cos(π/8), sin(π/8)], [sin(π/8), -cos(π/8)]], which is [cos(π/8), sin(π/8)]. If we square each element to get the probabilities, we get [0.85, 0.15], which is an 85% chance of seeing 0, and a 15% chance of seeing 1. If we send a 1 through it, I swear that the opposite happens: there's a 15% chance of seeing a 0, and an 85% chance of seeing a 1.

Now we just need something to simulate firing a photon at the two slits such that we don't know which slit it goes through. We'll do this by taking a qubit and sending it through a random gate. The matrix for this gate is [[sqrt(.5), sqrt(.5)], [sqrt(.5), -sqrt(.5)]]. If we initialize our qubit to 0 and send it through this gate, it enters the state [sqrt(.5), sqrt(.5)]. When we square each element to get probabilities, we get [.5, .5] which is a fifty-fifty chance of being a 0 or a 1, which seems random enough.

So what happens when we send a qubit first through random, simulating firing a photon at the two slits and not knowing which one it went through, and then sending the qubit through half-random, simulating the photon "drifting" from the slit it went through before it hits the wall? I claim that if this wasn't a leading question, people would guess that it would remain a fifty-fifty split between 0 and 1, since a 0 has as much chance to drift to 1 as a 1 has to drift to 0.

Let's try it. We initialize our qubit to 0, which is the state [1, 0]. After it goes through random it becomes [sqrt(.5), sqrt(.5)], as we saw above. Next we multiply this by the half-random matrix like so [sqrt(.5), sqrt(.5)] * [[cos(π/8), sin(π/8)], [sin(π/8), -cos(π/8)]], yielding [0.92, -0.38]. When we square these we get [0.85, 0.15], which is an 85% chance of seeing a 0, and 15% chance of seeing a 1.

I claim that this strange non-even distribution of probability is analogous to the interference pattern we see in the double slit experiment. Of course, with the light, there are many places each photon can end up on the wall, so there is room to create fancy looking interference patterns. In our simplified version, there are only two places the qubit can end up: 0 or 1. So really, anything that isn't a fifty-fifty split is as close to a "fancy interference pattern" as we can get.


We want to simulate observing which slit the photon passes through. We could do this by simply opening the qubit after passing it through the random gate. This would force it to be a 0 or a 1, and when we sent it along through the half-random gate, that gate would behave as expected, without any interference pattern. But somehow this feels like cheating. It feels like someone stopping the photon before it passes through a slit, and then sending an entirely new photon out the back of the slit toward the wall.

Somehow we want to "observe" the qubit without actually opening it. We can do this with a copy gate. We'll send a qubit through random, then we'll send that qubit along with a fresh 0 qubit into copy. Now we have two copies of the first qubit, or as close as we can get, so we can send one through half-random, and we can open the other one to see what the qubit was before sending it through half-random.

The first half of this we've already done in the previous post, sending one qubit through random, and then copying that qubit. The result is: [sqrt(.5), 0, 0, sqrt(.5)], which is a 50% chance that both qubits are 0, and a 50% chance that both qubits are 1.

We saw before that we can't decompose this into a state vector for each qubit, i.e., they are entangled. So we need to treat the action of sending one qubit through half-random and leaving the other qubit alone as a single gate. We can model "leaving a qubit alone" with a do-nothing gate represented by an identity matrix. Next we need to do some Kronecker product magic to combine the matrices for these gates together: [[cos(π/8), sin(π/8)], [sin(π/8), -cos(π/8)]] ⊗ [[1, 0], [0, 1]], which yields [[cos(π/8), 0, sin(π/8), 0], [0, cos(π/8), 0, sin(π/8)], [sin(π/8), 0, -cos(π/8), 0], [0, sin(π/8), 0, -cos(π/8)]].

Now the moment of truth. We multiply our state vector [sqrt(.5), 0, 0, sqrt(.5)] by the large harry matrix we just created like so [sqrt(.5), 0, 0, sqrt(.5)] * [[cos(π/8), 0, sin(π/8), 0], [0, cos(π/8), 0, sin(π/8)], [sin(π/8), 0, -cos(π/8), 0], [0, sin(π/8), 0, -cos(π/8)]], giving us about [0.653, 0.271, 0.271, -0.653]. If we square these values we get about [0.427, 0.073, 0.073, 0.427]. These probabilities are associated with the states 00, 01, 10 anad 11, where the first bit in each state represents the first qubit which went through the half-random gate, and the second bit represents the second qubit which we left alone.

So what is happening here. If the second qubit is a 0, meaning we think that the first qubit was a 0 before entering the half-random gate, then there's a 0.427/(0.427 + 0.073) ≈ 85% chance that the first qubit is a 0. This is what we would expect if the first qubit really was a 0 before entering the half-random gate. So no interference so far. Also, if the second qubit is a 1, meaning we think that the first qubit was a 1 before entering the half-random gate, then there's a 0.427/(0.427 + 0.073) ≈ 85% chance that the first qubit is a 1. This is also what we would expect if the first qubit really was a 1 before entering the half-random gate. So no interference at all.

I claim that this is analogous to the elimination of the interference pattern in the original double-slit experiment when experimenters were able to sneakily detect which slit a photon went through, without disturbing the photon.. too much. Note that we don't actually need to open the second qubit in order for the interference to go away. The fact that we could open it is enough.

Philosophy of Observation

This business of "observation" in quantum mechanics is a bit of a contentious issue. I keep saying we "open" a qubit to see what's inside, and this action causes the qubit to become either definitely 0 or definitely 1, destroying whatever strange probabilistic state it was in before.

But, it seems like quantum mechanics is the model of how everything works. And we, as experimenters, are also part of everything. Which suggests that we are just qubits, in the same quantum system as our experiments. So how can we "open" the qubits in our experiment? That would be like part of a quantum computer opening the qubit of another part of the quantum computer. But this can't happen, because opening a qubit is destructive — it changes the state of a qubit to be exactly 0 or 1, forgetting what it could have been — and we believe quantum computation is reversible, so destruction is not possible.

I think the answer lies in the simple quantum computer we built above. The copy gate (which is not destructive, since it only copies if the second qubit is 0, so we know if both qubits are the same afterwards that the original second qubit was a 0) entangles one qubit with another. This entanglement is "observation" in the quantum sense. That is, if we think we're observing the contents of a qubit, what's really happening is that the qubits in our brain have become entangled with the qubit, and the giant state vector of the universe has some analog of the state [sqrt(.5), 0, 0, sqrt(.5)] where there's a 50% chance that the qubit was a 0 and our brain believes it was a 0, and a 50% chance that the qubit was a 1 and our brain believes it was a 1, and both of these states exist as far as the quantum universe is concerned. It's just that we as humans can't see the whole state vector of the universe. We can only "see" the state that represents a human believing it can see a particular state. I think that is what is meant by the many-world interpretation, but I'm not sure.

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